Imagine that your favorite team is set to play one of its most important games on a big stage in a decade and a half. You're all set to go and cheer them on when a natural disaster strikes. What would you do?
This is the dilemma some of ALBA Berlin's faithful fans faced in April 2010, when a volcano erupted at Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland, spewing volcanic ash into the atmosphere and wreaking havoc on air traffic in some 20 countries across Europe for six days beginning on April 14. The EuroCup Finals – then played in a final four format – was to be played in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, on April 17-18. And most of the flights from Germany to Spain were canceled.
"It was the day before the semifinals. We drove to the airport in the morning and there we get the message that there would be no flights from Berlin, because of Eyjafjallajokull," Jakob Rueger remembered. "When we heard that the airport in Munich was open and that we could fly from Munich via Madrid to Bilbao, the decision in our group was made."
Of course, Berlin and Munich are not exactly neighbors. But Rueger and his fellow fans decided to risk it, even though there was no guarantee that the Munich airport would still be open when they got there. After all, how often does ALBA Berlin play for a continental trophy?
"Everything had to be done fast because there were only a few cars left. Then it was a race against the clock, we did not know how long the Munich airport would still be open. There were long traffic jams between Berlin and Munich," Rueger recalled.
The ALBA fans were lucky and their effort was rewarded. "Many ALBA fans followed our journey and kept their fingers crossed," Rueger said. "When we arrived at Munich Airport, it was unusually empty. There were almost no more passengers because all the flights were canceled. We had to wait a long time, but we got our plane to Madrid. Ten minutes after our flight left, Munich Airport was closed."
One way or another, by bus or boarding one the very few available planes, ALBA fans refused to give in and found their way to Fernando Buesa Arena in Vitoria-Gasteiz. It was not only one of the great basketball stories of that year, but one remembered fondly even today.
When the ALBA fans arrived at the EuroCup Finals, they received a heroes' welcome from their Spanish hosts. Euroleague Basketball President and CEO Jordi Bertomeu greeted the fans personally at Fernando Buesa Arena and the host club, EuroLeague side Saski Baskonia, gave them a hospitality room with free food and drink.
"I can't tell you how proud we are of our fans," ALBA coach Luka Pavicevic said at practice the day before the semifinals. "They support us all year in Berlin and on our road trips. But this is an extraordinary effort for any fans in any sport. We can't wait to see them."
ALBA delivered on the floor, too, by playing one of its best games of the season. ALBA downed heavy favorite Bizkaia Bilbao Basket in the semifinals 77-70. Adam Chubb led ALBA with 27 points on 11-of-16 two-point shooting. Immanuel McElroy added 13 with 3 three-pointers, one of them to stop Bilbao's comeback in the next-to-last minute. Not only did ALBA make history by returning to a European final after a 15-year absence, but also gave its fans the perfect reward for their efforts.
"It was a strenuous journey. A group of 50 ALBA fans even traveled 24 hours by bus from Berlin to Bilbao. The victory in the semifinal against Bilbao was, of course, great and something of a reward. The whole effort was worth it," Rueger said.
After the win, the coaching staff and players spoke about what the fans' efforts meant to them. "I'd like to congratulate my players and express my extreme admiration for our fans who sat 26 hours on a bus to come to see us. If we needed 1 percent of motivation more, they gave it to us," Coach Pavicevic said.
"This win is for our fans that came all the way from Berlin," forward Jurica Golemac added. "It took them 26 hours to come here and this is for them."
The fairy tale did not finish the right away, though. A day later, on Sunday, April 18, Power Electronics Valencia crushed ALBA 44-67 to win its second EuroCup title. In the win, Valencia set all sorts of defensive records, many of which still stand today. For many, the main memory from that day is the Berlin fans and not the final score.
"What we always said is true, that we have the greatest fans here in Europe and I think all these people who came on the bus from Berlin have proven that in a big way," Bertomeu said after the Finals. "It also shows something else we've known, that German fans are great lovers of basketball who are spreading enjoyment for our sport around their country more and more each year."
"It was great," Rueger said recently. "Many Valencia and Bilbao fans had heard of the heavy journey of the ALBA fans. It was a great atmosphere that weekend because we were warmly welcomed and everybody wanted to hear all of our story. Even EuroLeague boss Jordi Bertomeu was interested and talked to the fans. Everyone was proud of this.
"After the lost final against Valencia, the entire arena applauded the ALBA team and the fans from Berlin. There were goosebumps. Neven Spahjia, the coach of Valencia, thanked ALBA fans after the game in front of the arena for their passion. I remember many friendly conversations with basketball fans from Spain and Greece," he added.
It took ALBA nine years to get to another continental final. This time, its fans – including many who traveled to Vitoria in 2010 – will have the chance to see their team play against Valencia at their home court, Mercedes-Benz Arena. Game 2 of the EuroCup Finals will tip off in the German capital on Friday, April 12 at 20:00 CET.